On Dec. 17, the Herald sent a freedom of information request to the Killeen Independent School District asking for a complete, unrevised copy of its special education audit after months of verbal, informal requests.
KISD responded, saying an initial draft would be provided in January. January turned to February, February to March and still no audit of the program that was investigated by the state last March.
Finally, on March 4, KISD released a revised version of the audit to the Herald and other media outlets. But, as the Herald and parents of special education students awaited the information, KISD denied the request for the unrevised version and hired an attorney with taxpayer money to fight giving the information to the taxpayers.
As part of Sunshine Week’s initiative to increase public access to and awareness of public information, the Herald and media outlets across the country are reporting the work of shining light on government secrecy through the use of the Freedom of Information Act.
Terry E. Gandy, vice president and general manager of the Killeen Daily Herald, said, “We are pleased to celebrate National Sunshine Week. An open government is important to our taxpayers and the community.
“This week, the Daily Herald will be sharing a series of stories about transparency issues that exist in our community,” Gandy said. “A free press is what makes democracy work.”
For years, the Herald has used open records laws with the Killeen Independent School District, Killeen City Hall, the Killeen Police Department and others to hold them accountable to the public.
But getting documents related to public’s interest hasn’t always been easy.
City of Killeen
When it comes to traffic accidents and red-light camera data, the city of Killeen was forthcoming with several of the Herald’s requests for information in 2015. But when it came to recent information requests highlighting the city’s finances and contract bidding, the city has refused or has been slow to release such information.
The Herald sought information regarding Killeen’s contract with G4S Technology for security upgrades at the City Hall Annex (Municipal Court building). The Herald requested the contract because it was part of a more than $2 million contract the city awarded G4S without going public to seek competitive bids. The city’s original contract with G4S was for upgrades at the airport, but the city had made the contract open-ended and was paying G4S to do another city project.
The city denied the Herald’s request and asked the Texas attorney general for an opinion. The Herald filed its own request with the AG’s office, arguing for the taxpayers’ right to access the contract information.
The attorney general ruled in the Herald’s favor, denying most of the city’s arguments for exemptions from the open records law in seeking to withhold the documents.
The Herald has been seeking email and other correspondence related to the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, whose water and assets south of Killeen were recently transferred to the City of Georgetown and its city council.
The city of Killeen refused to release the emails and asked the Texas attorney general to block their release, but rescinded the request for an attorney general’s opinion late Friday and released several hundred pages of emails. The Herald is currently combing through the emails to shine more light on Georgetown’s acquisition of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District.
In many instances, when the Herald requested additional information from city staff for reports related to the city’s finances, bidding procedures and other issues, the city of Killeen denied the Herald’s requests to interview department heads in charge of their respective areas and required the Herald to submit all questions in advance to Hilary Shine, the city’s public information officer.
Killeen Police Department
While the chief of police answers directly to the city council of Killeen, the Herald has experienced pushback on several open records requests related to the city’s police department.
In September, the Herald requested any photo or video evidence related to the shooting of Titus Latchison, a troubled former Fort Hood soldier who was shot and later died after police responded to the suicidal man’s home April 4.
The Herald also requested information related to the department’s use of force complaints.
The city of Killeen denied the Herald’s request for the information and urged the Texas attorney general to rule that releasing the evidence would interfere with the prosecution or investigation of a crime. The attorney general ruled against the Herald, saying that disclosure of the use-of-force reports “would interfere with the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime.”
But soon after the city asked the attorney general to withhold the video of Latchison’s shooting, it released the video to the Herald and other media outlets. However, several moments of the video given to local media are missing. Killeen police said that the missing seconds were most likely due to “a bad burn” on the disk and assured the Herald that the video was not tampered with.
In a breaking development on Friday — after months of informal and formal requests — the Killeen Independent School District responded to the Herald’s request for an unrevised version of its special education audit conducted by Gibson Consulting Group for $85,735.
District officials notified the Herald Friday that a hard copy of January’s audit was available for pickup at the district’s headquarters. It was unclear Friday, however, whether this second audit released was the original, unrevised document handed to district officials by Gibson Consulting Group.
But the special education audit only touches on KISD’s finances and the Herald has utilized open records laws for other financial related requests of the district.
In a separate request, in September, the Herald also sought disclosure of KISD’s legal invoices for legal services provided to the district by several law firms paid with taxpayer money.
The Herald amended requests to allow for the redaction of student and KISD employee personal information in the invoices and has since received several documents, most of which are completely redacted.
The invoices and other financial documents do reveal, however, that KISD has spent millions of dollars over the last several years to defend itself from the parents of special-needs children who are seeking the services that KISD must provide under federal law.
The district has not yet fully complied with the Herald’s requests for legal invoices, now almost six months later.
Copperas Cove received 404 open records requests during fiscal 2014, according to previous Herald stories. However, the Herald was not required to file any requests during 2015.
All requests for information were routed through city spokesman Kevin Keller, who typically responded within a 24-hour period.
Transparency with the leadership in Harker Heights did not lead to any formal freedom of information requests filed by the Herald with the city in 2015.
The Herald is provided with the same agenda packets as city council members for each council meeting and workshop, which includes the city’s annual budget report filed in September. Cost of infrastructure projects, bids and correspondence with contractors are also provided in the packets.
The city of Harker Heights does not have a public information officer. Media inquiries are fielded via email or phone correspondence by City Manager David Mitchell, or respective department heads.
Questions asked by the Herald in 2015 produced same-day responses most of the time, or less than a week if the city official asked about Herald deadline information. Harker Heights Police Department does have a spokesman. He, the chief or deputy chief all provided the Herald with responses to questions in 2015. In a September 2015 Herald story about area police budgets, Chief Mike Gentry responded to questions about the department’s spending and needs for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
The city complies with the Texas Open Meetings Act, and according to publicly posted agendas, the council called for seven closed sessions in 2015.